Roger Lamb sent several of us an email yesterday to let us know that all of the old KNN (Kingdom News Network) videos had been uploaded to the ICOC Disciples Today YouTube channel. He also attached the link for a section from one of them highlighting a very important event which took place in February of 2004. It occurred at the Abilene Christian University Lectureship and featured a segment from a panel discussion by several of us from the ICOC and several from the mainstream Church of Christ. It was a unity panel and definitely worth watching. I’ll attach the link.
But watching that segment triggered some memories in me from deep down in my heart. Here is the email reply I sent Roger.
Thank you, Roger, for the video of the 2004 ACU Lectures and of the panel discussion. The video was very well done. For me, it brought up a plethora of memories, including one that is quite unique to me and I think quite unique in and of itself. It is pretty much a story untold by me, which is unusual, but a highly significant one in my life.
The day I traveled to that lectureship fell on the exact 25th anniversary of the small plane crash in Dallas that took the lives of the four full-time faculty members of the Preston Road School of Preaching. They were returning from a one-day trip to the ACU lectures late at night and crashed trying to negotiate an instrument landing in the most dense fog I have ever seen in Dallas.
I had left the faculty six months prior, one of the hardest decisions of my life. I almost didn’t make it. They had more vacancies than the one I left and had hired two new men. That meant that one of them died as a result of my leaving. When I visited their widows in the days following the crash, neither of whom I had met previously, both they and I knew that one of those men died as a result of me leaving the school. It took me a long time to process all of that. As I am writing this now, I’m not sure I have fully done it even after these many years.
Eldred Stevens was the director of the school and the pilot. He had flown to my hometown in that plane to recruit me as a student in early January of 1970 and later, when I was on the faculty, he and I had flown in it many times to recruit others. I loved flying and was a good recruiter, being a graduate of the school myself. Eldred and Rudell White were the two in the plane I knew, both of whom were very close friends. They were also graduates of ACU (when it was still ACC). I was asked to speak at both memorials, but since Rudell wasn’t nearly as well-known, I chose to travel to the Texas Panhandle where he was from and be with his family. That was one of the saddest experiences of my life, meeting his parents and brother for the first time and trying to console them while needing much consolation myself. They were a simple, salt-of-the-earth farming family who had produced one of the sharpest, most spiritual teachers I have ever known.
At the 2004 event, I met Eldred’s grandson and was invited to attend a luncheon hosted by the school’s faculty. I was able to get reacquainted with many of my former classmates and students I had taught. The whole thing was such a surreal experience. I was 36 years old when the plane crash occurred. I was exactly twice that in December of 2014 when we moved back to Dallas. God has graciously granted me many years of life since that fateful day. Tomorrow will be the 42nd anniversary of the crash. Interesting timing, Roger.
This is an abbreviated version of all that took place and but a fraction of all that I vividly remember. Oddly, in my book, “My Three Lives,” I didn’t tell this story. I don’t guess I have ever put it in print until now (February 20, 2021). The emotional impact this event had on my life is hard to describe, which may account for it being a story left untold for decades (at least in print). I could have been on that plane. I almost was. As I said, I flew in it with Eldred many times and have a photo of my two children standing on its wings when they were small. The four of us flew to a city in Oklahoma where our wives were speaking for a Women’s Day. I loved flying in small planes and have done it scores of times, probably well over a hundred times. But I missed that flight 42 years ago.
The crash occurred just before midnight and killed the four men instantly. Rudell’s wife, Kay, called me at 5 am the next morning to tell me about it. Hearing that news and realizing that I came very close to having been one of the victims put me into somewhat a state of shock. One of the elders of the Preston Road Church of Christ called me a short time later and asked me to come to the school and talk with the students. I had taught three of the four classes (groups) of students and we knew each other well. Thus, the elders thought I could help them deal with their grief. I was quite full of my own grief, but spent the day with the students. It was, to say the least, a surreal and sad day. I was also asked to teach part-time although I was preaching for a church in the area full-time. The elders of my church quickly agreed for me to accept that role with the school, given the tragedy that led to it. I continued in that role until we moved from Dallas in the summer of 1981.
I remember all of the phone calls that came very quickly the day after the crash. My dad was one who called as soon as he heard about it. Once I answered, he said “Wait a minute,” which was followed by a long period of silence. He explained that he assumed I was likely on the plane and had been killed, and in his shock he needed a few minutes to catch his breath and regain his composure. The whole experience produced perhaps the biggest emotional impact ever into my life, and that’s saying a lot.
Losing two close friends was a part of my shock. Eldred, although 20 years my senior and the Director of the school, loved what I loved – preaching, singing, flying and golfing. We did a ton of all of that together. Rudell and his family lived less than a mile from us in Richardson, Texas, and we rode together to our teaching job every day. Plus, we both loved fishing and fished a lot together. He was such a delightful man with a great sense of humor.
I remember arguing with him about whether largemouth bass or catfish were the best-tasting fish to eat. I took the former and he took the latter. One day I said to him, “Rudell, if catfish are so great, why didn’t God allow them to be eaten under the Mosiac Law?” The law demanded that fish have both scales and fins to be considered ceremonially clean and catfish don’t have scales. Rudell was a really sharp guy and a very quick thinker. Without hesitation he replied, “Well, that’s obvious – he was saving them for us Christians!” That was Rudell for you.
Another part of my shock was in realizing how close I came to being in the plane. The biggest part of the shock was in realizing that either Ray Evans or Tom Dockery died in my place. One of them was hired to fill the vacancy I left when I resigned from the faculty. I will never forget going to their homes and meeting their wives and trying to comfort them. I’m sure I met some of their children who were now without a daddy. Those were two of the most gut-wrenching, heart-breaking visits imaginable for me. It takes my breath away just writing about it now.
I remember staying up very late night after night after Theresa and the kids had gone to bed, just staring at the fire I kept going in the fireplace. I had thoughts like, “Why them and not me? Why me and not them?” Of course, there are no answers to questions like those, but we cannot keep from asking them. The only real answer is found in the doxology which ends Romans 11, so we must leave it at that until eternity.
Romans 11:33-36 (NIV2011)
33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! 34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” 36 For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.
NOTE: This article was originally written as Chapter 18 in my book, “The Power of Spiritual Relationships.”
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance. (Proverbs 1:1–5)
I am very thankful for the youth of our churches. My hope for the future of our churches is in them. While I appreciate all that God has been able to use me and others of the older generations to accomplish, my hope for what lies ahead is not in us. We have done our thing, and now the future is up to our younger generations. Many in my generation have a difficult time recognizing this and thus have a difficult time letting go of the reins. But God and time will see to it that we do, you can trust that! My own rapidly increasing attendance at memorial services makes the point, loudly! It would be far better if we were to recognize the need and have a planned generational transition much sooner than later. That is my prayer and my plea in this chapter.
A Lost Generation
Our family of churches, the ICOC, has been seriously affected in negative ways by losing a generation of leaders. In the early years of this millennium, we suffered as a movement a serious upheaval and a series of reactions. While we needed something to jar us into a realization of ineffective and wrongful spiritual building in our serious attempts to carry out the Great Commission, we experienced more damage than we realized at the time. A grave part of the damage was the loss of a generation of leaders (and members). As our overall membership declined, our available funds to support ministry staff declined. Young ministry staff leaders in their twenties were laid off because of these dwindling contributions and the decision to direct available funds toward ministry staff who were older and dependent on those funds for supporting themselves and their families in their career choice.
It took some years to start recovering and raising up younger leaders again in significant numbers, but by then we had another problem. Leadership roles were limited, and although we were adding young people to our ministry staffs, their opportunities for advancement into more influential roles were already filled by older staff members. The young ones could lead campus ministries or youth programs or in some cases, small churches. But the opportunities to lead in roles that carried with them a voice that was heard on a broader scale simply weren’t there. When we were growing fast in the 1980s and 1990s, leadership advancement was a natural part of our growth. When growth stopped, suddenly the whole picture was different, and natural progressions in leadership were stymied.
The result has been that older, established leaders have guided most of the directions we have taken as a whole. The same older crowd is leading in the same older ways, and those ways have ceased to produce the results they once did. Without younger leaders with younger thinking whose voices are not just heard, but allowed to shape our future directions, we will continue down the path of diminishing growth and relevance with the upcoming generations. As I put it bluntly from time to time, many (not all) of those who were once new wine breaking old wineskins have themselves become old wineskins—and don’t realize it. It pains me to say such things, but facts are facts, and I think these are indisputable and need to be recognized, admitted and acted upon.
Since our growth rate is diminishing, the natural progression of having more and more younger leaders entering the fray is not going to happen organically. We older leaders are going to have to find alternative roles for ourselves, like shepherding and teaching (teaching was my choice over a decade ago), and put younger leaders in roles that allow them to help us figure out how to turn the growth rate around. That might sound radical, but I hope it also sounds rational, because I believe it is the only rational choice available. The lost generation syndrome can be reversed, but only if we are willing to make radical choices that seem unnatural to us.
Youth and Radical Change
Christianity had its beginning with youth, for they are the ones open to entertaining new ideas and approaches. The apostles were likely quite young. If John the apostle wrote his five documents (his Gospel, his three letters and Revelation) when tradition says he did, he must have been a teenager when called to be an apostle. I suspect most of the other apostles were also young. History shows that radical things done in the spiritual realm are almost always initiated by youth. Youth and radical go together, not old and radical. It is the nature of aging to become tradition bound, and the recognition and rejection of traditions becomes more and more an elusive task. I wish it weren’t so, but it is, and that is why my hope is in the youth among us.
As that exciting first century church aged, it moved further and further away from the truth and replaced it with traditions. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit predicted this departure through Paul in no uncertain terms. Passages like 1 Timothy 4:1–3 and 2 Timothy 4:2–4 demonstrate that God didn’t want this turning aside to take later generations by surprise. They also serve as a warning about how easy it is to move from truth to traditions, an ever-present danger in every age. Further, the danger is not just limited to traditions that directly violate Scripture; the ones that are not unbiblical but become ineffective are in some ways more damaging, since they block the effective spreading of the gospel. That type represents our current challenge, for said simply, we as a movement are stuck.
As history unfolded, it was only a matter of time before some youthful radicals had enough of the Establishment’s traditions and drew a line in the sand. Well, in this case, it was actually a document nailed to a door. Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” against Catholic teachings to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. He was in his early thirties when this momentous event took place, but he was much younger when his radicalness was taking shape. Another very important figure in the Protestant Reformation was John Calvin, who began his extensive writings when yet in his twenties. Once again, history connects the terms “youth,” “radical” and “change.”
Then we come to the Age of Reason, when the American Restoration Movement was born. Much about the Reformation was commendable; much about its effectiveness was not so commendable. By 1700, there were 150 divisions within Protestantism. In the early 1800s, leaders from various denominations started questioning the concept of reformation. Trying to reform something with so many divergences from the Bible was proving to be impossible in the quest for religious unity. Thus the idea of just going back to the New Testament as the pattern for Christianity and restoring it gained ground quickly. The two most influential leaders started their quest for restoration of the NT church when they were still young. Alexander Campbell was in his twenties and Barton W. Stone was just about thirty.
Fast forward to the origins of my current church association, now known as the International Churches of Christ. This group began as a spiritual renewal group within what I now call the Mainline Churches of Christ. It was at the outset a campus ministry movement in the 1970s. Its epicenter was in Gainesville, Florida at the Crossroads Church of Christ, and it was spearheaded by Chuck Lucas when he was about thirty and later pushed forward by Kip McKean when he was about twenty-five. That Crossroads Movement became the Discipling Movement and the Boston Movement and ultimately the ICOC as we now know it.
The Future – Scary and Exciting!
Is not the pattern of radical spiritual change fairly obvious? Doesn’t it always start with radical youth who burn with a desire to change the world? That is why I am so thankful for the youth among us. They must pick up the baton and do what we are currently failing to do—affect the whole world significantly with the rapid spread of the gospel. Christianity has never been about having a nice, comfortable church to make us feel warm inside once or twice a week. It was designed by its Designer to radically affect the world.
Our society is changing so fast that keeping up with how people think is almost impossible for us older folks. We don’t understand youth and they don’t understand us too well either. We use similar words but often are speaking a different language. But that is nothing new. It has always been that way. Generation gaps are real, and really important to at least recognize (not just decry). I highly recommend reading Chapter 21 in Michael Burns’ book All Things to All People. The title of that chapter is “World War Z,” and I can promise you that it is one of the most eye-opening, disturbing pieces we of the older generation could read. It is for those of all generations among us a must-read—so please read it!
Youth—Christ’s mission now depends on you! Grab hold of it and GO! People like me who have done their best want to see our work as only a foundation of what you can do as you build to the sky with the help of Almighty God. I am praying for you and already thanking God for what you are going to do. I am also praying for us older ones, that we will help you begin doing it—now. Let’s all please do our part, and may God lead us to do it soon!
This world has so many problems. We try to solve those problems through political means and through our freedoms in America to protest and aggressively comment against our leaders. When we think about the problems in this country of racism, poverty, inequality, bullying and so on, it can get very overwhelming. Wouldn’t it be great if someone had a magic wand to immediately make good out of evil? Imagine if there was a young teen that had the power of one swish of that magic baton and could immediately stop racism. What if a teacher somehow found out she had the ability to whisk away poverty because she was in possession of a magic pointer? They would be celebrities. They would be heroes.
Once Upon a Time…
There was a man that had such a power, and this is not a Fairy Tale. His name was Jesus. He commanded attention everywhere he went. In Matthew 4, crowds followed him, listened to his teaching and were healed of various diseases and illnesses. In Matthew 5, the crowds were so large that he had to go onto a mountainside so everyone could hear him teach and experience his healing power. Matthew 14 tells us that the crowds were so large and constant that in trying to get some alone time, he left on a boat. Yet, people followed him on foot from many towns. Jesus was that celebrity I mentioned earlier. He had power that no one ever experienced before. He had the ability to teach in a way that no one had ever heard before. He had the power to raise his magic staff and heal the crowds in one fell swoop. What are the examples that the Gospel writers tell us of how he healed the masses?
The Gospels reference Jesus’ healing ministry over 80 times in over 30 chapters of the Gospel accounts, which comprise 33% of his entire ministry. Wow, to have his magic wand now would be priceless! The problem is, he had no magic wand. He didn’t use special fairy dust that would blow over the multitudes. So how did he heal all those people? Simply through touch. Relationship. Singular compassion on each person he saw. Personal contact. There was no fairy dust, there was no magic wand but there was the healing power of social interaction.
Imagine the lines that formed to receive healing. Also imagine the excitement when the mother was holding her daughter who needed healing and was next in line. Then she steps up to Jesus, and even though there are large crowds, Jesus is totally focused on her and her daughter. Jesus was focused on that little girl. He asked what her name was? Bending down to her, the girl looked into the eyes of a man who had authority over the angels. Those same eyes that knew the world before it was formed. And most of all, amongst the noise and confusion, she saw those eyes focused solely on her. Story after healing story, Jesus touched. He touched physically, sometimes just emotionally or verbally. He healed through personal connection.
Making It Personal
My job is to help the poor. As a leader of HOPE worldwide, we seek to help the poor as much as possible with the resources we are blessed with. In my daily walk, I try to help the poor as much as I can. I have been a disciple for over 43 years and have tried to incorporate that into my life. I have tried my best, with countless failures, to walk as Jesus walked, yet I have recently learned a lesson of helping the poor that has been very clear in the Bible I have been reading for four decades, but I missed it. How did Jesus help those in need? How would Jesus help the poor today? How would he respond to the woman at the stop light asking for money? How would he respond to the homeless living under a bridge?
HOPE worldwide has an audacious goal that is two-fold. We aspire to see all disciples regularly helping the poor as they go about their typical day. The world is full of those with unmet needs for the most basic things in life. But we also hope that through serving the poor, the server will be transformed to be more like Jesus, and that the beneficiary of that service would see and feel the love of Jesus.
When I hand out a dollar bill to that guy at the stop light, I feel good about myself, and that man is glad that he is making progress toward his daily goal, but neither of us are really transformed. When I hand the sandwich out to the homeless souls living in the cold on hard, wet concrete, I’m sure they are glad to have something to eat that day, and I feel good that I took time out of my schedule to serve because of my desire to please God. But I was not transformed, and I doubt that the person I helped was either. Begging is demeaning, reducing a person created in God’s image to be reinforced in the belief that he or she is only a beggar.
Ahh – Real Transformation
Recently I tried a different method of helping a person in need. I was coming home from one of my frequent Home Depot runs. At a small intersection near my house, a number of individuals stand at the intersection to ask for money. As usual, if I had cash in small denominations, and the traffic allowed, I would give the person a few dollars. This time I decided to practice what HOPE worldwide (and I) preach. I stopped the car alongside the road and got out of my car, then asked the gentleman if he and I could talk for a few minutes. At first, he was leery of my request, but I tried to assure him that it was cool. He then came over to find out what I wanted. I introduced myself and told him I just wanted to talk with him about his life, and if I could pray with him. I let him know that I would give him whatever money he would miss out on by talking to me instead of collecting dollar bills from passers-by.
We spoke for about 15 minutes. I asked him his story, where he came from, if he had any kids etc. It was a very heartfelt conversation, especially as he sensed that I had no hidden agenda. As he spoke more, I can tell you that for this brief moment, Isaiah felt like a man who was respected for who he was as a person. We discussed having teenage kids, his old job fixing cars, and how the Bible assures us that every human being is created in God’s image. Finally, I asked him if I could put my hand on his shoulder and pray for him. He looked shocked in a good way. We bowed our heads and I prayed. Afterward he told me with a slight tear in his eyes that no one had ever prayed for him. I offered him a twenty-dollar bill to make up for his lost revenue for the time he talked with me. He flatly refused. I told him that if he didn’t take it, I would just leave it on the street and it would just blow away. We laughed and he sheepishly took the money.
As I drove off, I realized that I had been transformed in a way that I never would have had I just opened my window and handed him some money. I want to believe that Isaiah was also transformed, at least for that moment in time. Jesus didn’t just throw out his healing powers to those that would catch them. In every healing, he personally and freely gave his power to an individual, one touch at a time. Since that experience imitating Jesus, as I read the Gospels, I am reminded of my friend Isaiah and the thousands of people Jesus touched, interpersonally, respectfully and compassionately, one person at a time. I think I hear Jesus still saying, “Go thou and do likewise.” Are we listening?
Jim McGuiggan is a friend, an old friend more than a current friend, but an important friend. Jim taught for a number of years at the Sunset School of Preaching training ministers. During some of those years, I was teaching at the Preston Road School of Preaching, a very similar training program. During that time and shortly thereafter, Jim and I spent a few very enjoyable times together, to me very memorable times. With his combination of wit and Irish brogue, I thought him to be a most captivating speaker. In fact, he was one of my favorites during those years when our lives overlapped.
I was also a fan of his books. He wrote much like he spoke, thus also in captivating ways. He delved into several genres of spiritual writing as he penned a large number of books. One, he wrote of doctrinal matters, much of it about the end times. Several of his books absolutely destroy the now popular premillennial views. One of the early promotors of this heresy was Hal Lindsey, and Jim addressed Lindsey’s teaching very directly and very effectively. Anyone willing to follow Jim’s arguments with Bible in hand would agree with my statement that he decimated the views of Lindsey and all others who followed in his steps. Just to clarify, that would include the popular “Left Behind” books and movie, based on a false doctrine of the “Rapture.” (You can read my material addressing the same issues on my website, gordonferguson.org.)
Another genre Jim pursued was that of biblical expositions. He wrote a number of commentaries on both Old Testament and New Testament books. His commentaries on the Prophets were to me invaluable. Knowing that he wasn’t going to be caught up in speculative teaching when interpreting difficult passages and books, like Ezekiel, gave me comfort when studying the prophets. I didn’t agree with everything he wrote, but as is accurately said of scholars, even if you don’t end up agreeing with them on a given point, you will never look at that point in quite the same way again.
The third genre of Jim’s writing falls into the realm of devotional books. Presently, I am rereading his “The God of the Towel,” with the subtitle “Knowing the Tender Heart of God.” He has written a series of books like this one containing short chapters, most of them two or three pages each, that are almost unique in their ability to reach the heart. I begin most of my days reading one of the short chapters in one of these books. I will end this post with one of these little golden nuggets, their value lying in both the content and the way it is presented. The man is a captivating writer, at least to me. I also read similar pieces on his blog, “Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan” (https://jimmcguiggan.wordpress.com/).
Perhaps his longest book in this genre is “Celebrating the Wrath of God.” Although the title is scary, I think overly so, the book is similar to my most popular book, “The Victory of Surrender.” When I am on a personal spiritual retreat, I read several books in addition to spending much time in prayer and listening to spiritual music. I always read my own “Surrender” book and have read Jim’s “Celebration” book at least five times through the years. I obviously value the potential of its spiritual impact immensely.
In all of his writing, Jim is clearly an independent thinker. He has, and does, read very widely and quotes or references other writers of all types, an interesting number of them atheists. He is not a narrow thinker, confined within the walls of spiritual orthodoxy. Most writers in any genre are often called “Me Too” authors. In other words, they express about the same things others have already expressed. They just look for new ways to say them. Jim is decidedly not one of these types. He often goes in directions I’ve never read about or thought about, and therein lies a significant part of the value of reading JM. You are forced to keep thinking and keep learning.
There you have it – my appreciation for an old friend and his contribution to my spiritual knowledge, and more importantly, to my spiritual life. When I was young, it was his doctrinal and expositional writing that most intrigued me. Now that I am old, it is his devotional material that warms my heart. Many of the heart-warming nuggets are introduced with a sharp edge that first opens the heart to let the other in. He is a master at the technique, almost in a class by himself as far as I’m concerned.
Jim is now in his 80’s, a few years older than me. He lost his dearly loved wife, Ethel, some years back, and I suspect a part of Jim died with her. But she still lives in his writing, appearing at unsuspected times in unsuspected ways. My old friend and I are obviously in our last phase of life on planet earth. My most important pursuit in this phase of life is simply to seek the heart of God and walk with him. Jim, thank you for being such a help to me for so many decades, and especially in this present one. And now the quote from the last paragraph of a little chapter from “The God of the Towel,” entitled “More Than Pardon.”
But there is one thing we need to be clear about – it must be holiness we want and not mere pardon; it must be holiness we want and not merely the sugary sweet “love” we hear so much of. And if it is holiness we want, God will go after it in us and will not ask us if we’re happy about the way he pursues it.
NOTE: this article originated as a Facebook post on both of my FB pages.
Jerry Jones departed this life on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. He and I were appointed as elders together in Phoenix, Arizona in September of 2004. We became co-laborers together in the church and close friends in all settings. In a short time, I think both of us would have said that we were the best of friends. We had many things in common, including a love for nature sports like fishing, and also golf, although neither of us were great golfers. We shared many happy times having fun together. We shared many happy times serving together in God’s kingdom. We also shared some of the most challenging times in the church that I have ever faced. In going through those times, I have stated repeatedly that I wouldn’t have made it through them without Jerry. I do believe that to be absolutely true.
When Jerry’s dearly loved wife of 57 years called to tell me that Jerry was approaching death, my heart became very heavy, but my mind became very active. I thought about our times together and how I would describe him to those who didn’t know him or know him well. I thought back to a book I read about Jesus decades ago entitled, “Man of Steel and Velvet.” I don’t remember much about the book, but the title encapsulates the nature of Jesus perfectly.
I think of his confrontations of the Pharisees and other religious leaders who were leading people astray from God’s will. Jesus was clearly a man of steel on those occasions. I think of him as a man of velvet in his dealings with women and children. His relationship encounters those of that day displayed both of these extremes and showed every needed response in between. He was the most beautiful demonstration of both strength and sensitivity possible.
Jerry reminded me of Jesus as a person of both steel and velvet. During our church challenges, he had a steely, unwavering character. He was an old navy career man, and it showed. Yet, that part of his nature had been sanctified by his conversion to Christ. He wasn’t at all harsh, but he was unyielding when it came to doing what was right and needed. In the middle of the storms, he was simply unflappable. I’ve known few like him. In spite of his deep love for people, he never caved in to sentimentality. He was just determined to do what was righteous in spite of possible responses and reactions.
He and Karen were retired when he was appointed an elder, and they chose to come to the ministry staff meetings as if they were on staff. What a blessing that was! Jerry could read people like a book. His level of emotional intelligence had perhaps begun as “street smarts,” but was molded by his Christian perspective. The spiritual battles we faced in the early part of this century were extremely challenging, but Jerry was always up to the challenge. He was my rock on many occasions and my greatest supporter in the leadership roles in which I served. I had no one else quite like him.
Jerry and Karen became Christians later in life in somewhat of a unique way. Their daughter was the first in their family to be converted and she then reached out to her brother. Jerry and Karen attended the baptism of their son and were deeply moved by all that they saw and heard. They had not been particularly religious prior to that, but the impact of what they were observing in their children and their friends was huge. Jerry and Karen studied the Bible and were baptized, full of their newfound faith and zeal. This led them to fast growth spiritually. They were all in with church activities and Bible study. In the latter area, Jerry made up for lost time and dug deeply into learning the Bible. He became an avid reader of spiritual books and I think read every one I have written.
When we moved to Phoenix at the end of 2003, the church didn’t have an eldership, but the members were very urgent about the need to appoint some elders. The staff and non-staff opinion leaders had formed a group to act as an advisory council during this challenging time. They were a part of the elder appointment process by discussing and recommending possible candidates. Jerry’s name came up, but his relatively short experience as a Christian was seen as a possible deterrent to being appointed in a short timeframe. In a context dealing with the qualification of elders, 1 Timothy 3:6 warns against appointing new converts, because pride might be a problem for them. However, as those of us on staff discussed it, Jerry’s obvious humility ruled out our concerns in this area. As a result, Jerry was appointed with four others of us as the first eldership in Phoenix was established. Thank God that he was!
Jerry’s velvet side was seen in a number of ways. Like Jesus, he was very sensitive to women and children, and to men who needed that sensitivity. He and Karen made two trips to the Philippines with us, serving in many ways. Both of them facilitated groups for a very large Dynamic Marriage training session that I was leading. The rigorous schedule just about did us all in, but the Jones did a great job and endeared themselves to the churches in the Philippines.
On one occasion, we visited a HOPE Worldwide complex that housed a large group of children who had been abused in every way possible. When we arrived at the site, we were carefully informed that due to the abuse the children had suffered, they would probably be hesitant to relate to us in a normal, relaxed manner. Of course, the explanation made all the sense in the world. However, Jerry’s spirit was perceived immediately by the children, and the young ones were crawling all over him from the beginning, just like he was Santa Claus. I have some heart-warming photos from that special day. But that was Jerry for you.
Jerry and Karen were the coordinators for regular trips to an orphanage in Agua Prieta, Mexico just over the border of Arizona. This was a labor of love for them for many years and watching how the kids there responded to Jerry was about the same as the kids in the Philippines. Jerry was the man of steel and velvet, a man among men, full of the Spirit of Jesus. This unique blend of strength and sensitivity made Jerry one of the most unique elders I have ever worked with and it made him one of my trusted allies and closest friends. His spirit was infectious and his heart for God and people was large. He was dearly loved by his devoted wife, his children and grandchildren, and by his spiritual family. Thank you, God, for blessing us all with such a man! Go with God, my brother!
In the year 2020 the focus of my biblical studies has been the role of culture, first in understanding the biblical text, and second, in application to the 21st century world in which we live. This is an endeavor of a decade or a lifetime, not a year, but because I have felt it to be a major gap for me, I am making this my focus for at least this year. Valuable resources for getting a better understanding of culture to understand the biblical text have been books by N.T. Wright, Kenneth Bailey, Walter Brueggemann, and the Bema Discipleship lessons – all helpful in getting historical, cultural, and Jewish context. This is a work in progress, and I am not writing with a special expertise, only an increased awareness.
As I wrote in another article, “Do You Get It?”( http://gordonferguson.org/articles/do-you-get-it-by-jim-mccartney/), I have a nagging sense that I am missing something important due to my many biases as an upper middle class, western, educated, older white man. Consequently, I am continually observing the integrity of my efforts to follow Jesus, striving to balance grace and the expectation of a high moral/ethical standard. While doing so, I cannot help but think about the extent to which I am influenced by the culture, place and time in which I live, and how that often is an undertow to my heart’s desire to love God. Additionally, I consider the role of the church today, and how it is to interact with the 21st century culture to which it ministers.
The goal of this article is to explore the role of the church in addressing issues of social justice. I hope to open the door wider for dialogue and exploration of the many specifics issues only mentioned here which deserve greater thought and consideration. Again, I am not an expert, and only hope to stimulate a broad audience to engage a critical conversation.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8 (all quotes are from the New International Version, 2011)
Justice and acting justly is a major theme in the Old Testament text and Americans, especially, can completely misunderstand it. The Hebrew word, Mishpat, implies not so much a punitive justice (the punishment fits the crime) but a restorative justice, a making things right again. Compare and contrast the American judicial system with working out a conflict in a family caused by a wrongdoing. The judicial system is primarily designed to determine guilt or innocence and then to punish the guilty. In the family, however, the goal is to work things out and restore the harmony that existed before the wrongdoing. Mishpat, restorative justice, is the latter; it is a making things right again: in the family, in the community, in the nation, and in the world.
With the good creation of Genesis 1-2 as a perpetual context, God acted through history to create a justly ordered people, a community of his that would model his desire for all of creation. Because of the undertow of human selfishness, the Old Testament is filled with grace, guidance, (yes, some punishment), a perpetual call to righteousness (right relationships, with God and each other) and justice.
Consider the following scriptures that are highlighted in this video on Justice by the Bible Project (https://youtu.be/A14THPoc4-4) which is about six minutes in length :
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” – Proverbs 31:8-9
“He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them – he remains faithful. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” – Psalm 146:6-9
“This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” – Jeremiah 22:3
Reading the Old Testament there is a continual call to take care of the orphan, widow, foreigner/alien, and the poor and needy. Righteousness and justice depended on it.
The Jewish people, however, could never get it right and hold it together for very long. God went to great lengths to redeem and restore his people between the Genesis 1 and Matthew 1 but ultimately it could only be done in Jesus. Through Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, God could make things right again.
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:6-8
Jesus inaugurated his ministry in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, by reading the following from Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
As the promised Messiah and suffering servant, Jesus in his earthly ministry was continually caring for the poor and needy, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Jesus cared about both the body and the soul, and he demonstrated the righteousness and justice that God had been calling his people to all along. He did it right. Reading the gospels, it is amazing how much Jesus attended to the physical needs of people, elevated the status of women, and extended his ministry to those who were culturally avoided or ignored, the tax collectors and “sinners.” He also spoke to the ways that various segments of the Jewish people had assimilated to the Greek and Roman cultures and/or missed the major points in God’s desire for Mishpat, a justice that would make things right.
While dying, Jesus showed God’s love and mercy by meeting the needs of his mother, his disciple, John, and the repentant thief, and his death provided the sacrifice for our sins and the means to be restored to a right relationship with God. Then, through the promised Holy Spirit and the community of the early church, the good news of the kingdom and God’s grace was proclaimed throughout the Jewish communities and out to the Gentiles which had always been God’s plan promised to Abraham:
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:2-3 (emphasis added)
In the words of the Bible Project video, the early church was comprised of disciples of Jesus who had received undeserved righteousness and were seeking righteousness and justice for others.
The earliest Christians were known for their love and for their care of those in prison (Christian or not), the orphans and the widows, imitating the life of Jesus. Making things more right for those who were hurting and oppressed (justice) was part of the church’s mission. But with time, many Christians came to believe that our lives on earth don’t matter much. The focus of the church narrowed to obedience, forgiveness, and preparation for a future state of disembodied spirits in heaven. And this opened the door to a sad chapter in Christendom characterized by abuses of power, oppression, and an appetite for violence. The church lost its distinctiveness, conformed to the culture of its age, and gave up on God’s desire for Mishpat.
Fortunately, over time, the Holy Spirit worked through various reformation and restoration movements to call Christendom back to God’s heart for his people. But again, because of human selfishness and the pulls of culture, the history of the church, not unlike the Old Testament history, has been full of fits and starts.
21st Century Christian Church
So, how are we doing today?
First, the “we” is problematic because there is so much diversity of teaching and practice among modern Christians in the most general sense of the word Christian. For this writing I will narrow the “we” to those who honor the biblical text, strive to follow Jesus, and practice Christian community – still broad, but a bit narrower!
The dominant culture and world view of the 21st century western world has been heavily influenced by the Greco-Roman, Hellenistic world view. The importance of education, entertainment, and athletics dominate our leisure, economy, and lifestyle. We have also borrowed the concept that God exists to serve us rather than the other way around. The prosperity gospel and prayers dominated by asking God for things reflects this cultural influence. Add to the mix western individualism, and spirituality becomes much more about the individual than the community. We have also borrowed from Aristotle that our souls can live separately from a body and ultimately will congregate in an ethereal heaven (or hell) in a disembodied state. This has led to all kinds of weird thinking about Christianity and life on planet Earth, from the problems I discussed above in church history, to challenges in today’s modern church.
I would now like to focus on a text a friend and the editor of this article, Lai-Yan Faller, reminded me of from Jesus’ model prayer:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – Matthew 6: 9-10
Jesus asks us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. While we are here, we pray with a desire to bring heaven to earth. This is consistent with the promise of Genesis 12 that through God’s people all peoples on earth will be blessed. The kingdom and the church are described as a city set on a hill and the bride of Christ. The ministry of the modern church therefore should reflect the promise to Abraham and the ministry of Jesus, showing everyone how to do it right.
God cares about how we live here and now. If John Lennon understood God’s heart, he may have changed the lyrics of “Imagine” saying instead of imagine there’s no heaven, imagine heaven on earth. John was an atheist, but I think he had a legitimate complaint that those who called themselves Christians were so focused on a future heaven that they did not care enough about life on Earth.
Much of evangelical Christianity focuses on the individual’s freedoms and rights, reflecting a culture of western individualism. In addition, a philosophy that God helps those who help themselves may contribute to a lack of compassion for those who are disadvantaged. Pretty Hellenistic and not much Mishpat in this worldview.
Additionally, the church can be conflicted. There may be a reluctance to wade into the waters of social justice because it is deemed to be political, divisive, or disruptive to the church’s primary mission to get as many as possible to a future heavenly state.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the resurrection and a life after this one. And I believe that what we believe and how we live determines our next life.
On the other hand, I believe that how we live matters to this life. And how the church demonstrates Jesus matters to this life. We are to bring heaven to earth, to restore justice, to make things right today – which has been God’s heart from day one.
There is a cost to doing this. Jesus’ call to discipleship in Luke 9:23 is “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Following Jesus’ example requires self-sacrifice and an undying devotion to being like him. As wonderful as it seems to be like him there will be a strong negative reaction from those who prefer the comfortable western and materialistic approach to Christianity and don’t want to be challenged to deal with their sin, inclusive of sexism and racism and all other forms of oppression.
In the early 1960’s my paternal grandmother’s brother, Carl Spain, a preacher, missionary, and college professor spoke to an audience of Christian ministers in the Churches of Christ. He called them out on racism, denouncing the segregation of churches and the lack of accepting black students to Christian colleges. He was strong while speaking up for the oppressed, and the reaction was not mild. He received the expected nasty calls and letters from those who disagreed, an attempt was made to bomb his house, and his life was threatened…by “Christians.” Ultimately change happened, but it was slow, and even today Christian churches are some of the most segregated communities (https://carlspaincenter.org/). I am fortunate to be part of a very multicultural church in Boston, but it is still quite rare.
Is it possible that the fear of reaction or persecution from those trapped in a cultural norm, Christian or not, causes us to prefer to fit in rather than practice justice? To be normal rather than like Jesus? To be selfish rather than selfless? To be more focused on speaking up for our rights than that rights of the oppressed?
What can the church do to practice Mishpat (restorative justice), to bring God’s kingdom and will to earth as it is in heaven, in the 21st century? This is a big question, and the task may seem daunting. Indeed, just as I personally am a work in progress, so is the church. Here are a few suggestions of steps we can take:
- Take care of the poor and the needy, as part of the mission of the church, and not relegate it to a voluntary contribution to a non-profit.
- Speak up for and take care of the orphan, widow, alien, and all who are oppressed; remaining in uncomfortable silence is neither acting justly (Micah 6:8) nor rescuing from the hand of the oppressor (Jeremiah 22:3).
- Address racism and sexism: set things right biblically.
- Meet the whole spectrum of spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of people – as Jesus did.
- Speak to God’s good creation and challenge greed and the normative values of economic empire and consumption.
- As the bride of Christ, be his partner and show him to the world. He is the answer and when disenfranchised baby boomers, millennials, and others see him clearly, unclouded by a corrupt western and materialistic culture, not only will fewer walk away from the church, but they will tell all their friends about Jesus. He is the way. He is our Mishpat.
- Pray and live that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
At the end of the day, how we live on planet earth matters today and how well we practice Mishpat will draw or repel many to or from God’s heavenly kingdom – on earth and in the resurrected life to come.